If you want to find the origins of feminism, give the job to a woman.
White House chief technology officer Megan Smith on Wednesday launched a nationwide search for the original "Declaration of Sentiments," the document signed in July 1848 at the Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y..
The historic resolution, which called for not just women's suffrage but equal pay and the right to attend college, is not technically a government document. But Smith, who spent part of her childhood in upstate New York, wanted to see it for herself once she started working for the administration in the fall of 2014. There was one catch: the National Archives didn't have it, and no one knew where it was.
"So the game begins," Smith recounted in a phone interview from Houston, where she was preparing to make the announcement at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Wednesday afternoon.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the resolution before the Seneca Falls conference, which took place July 19-20, 1848. Historians know that anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass took it to the print shop of his newspaper, The North Star, to print it.
"We don’t know where it goes from there," said Smith, adding she doesn't think the original document was intentionally excluded from the nation's historic coffers. "There’s nothing malicious here. This is simply a lack of consciousness. For most Americans, if you asked them what the Declaration of Sentiments is, they would have no idea what you’re talking about."
And as the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero noted in an interview, the declaration wouldn't be housed in the National Archives anyway because it's not a federal government document.
"It’s an important piece of our history, and it’s a shame that, I suspect, it disappeared," Ferriero said, adding that when it comes to Smith's crowdsourcing approach, "It’s possible that this thing will turn up, and her approach is really great--getting as many people as possible to look for it."
Smith is determined to show that women's history is not "a niche corner" of U.S. history, but instead, in her words, "central history." She has already launched an online oral history project titled, "The Untold History of Women in Science and Technology," in which female administration officials tell the stories of pioneering scientists and technologists.
Apollo 13 doesn't feature NASA research mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, the African American woman who joined the agency's cadre of "women computers" and charted the flight path for not just the first U.S. mission to space, but several subsequent expeditions. Astronaut John Glenn trusted Johnson's mathematics skills so implicitly that when NASA opted to use electronic data processors to calculate the launch conditions for its Friendship 7 mission, he insisted she check them before he flew. Her figures matched the computer's precisely.
"No one knows that John Glenn wouldn’t fly unless Katherine Johnson checked the math," Smith said. "It’s an amazing story, and it’s totally unknown."
While many Americans have heard of Stanton and a handful of other suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony, much of the memorabilia from that era remains scattered. The minutes of the convention have not been found, but historians have located the tea table on which they were written.
By showcasing these items and lesser-known pioneers in American history, Smith said, it will give women and people of color "a sense that people like you have always done this, a sense of belonging."
At a time when the tech industry has come under fire for being dominated by white men, she added, those kinds of facts can encourage women and people of color to enter the fields of science and technology.
While several of the items on the Declaration of Sentiments have been addressed through changes to U.S. laws on voting, marriage and divorce, among other matters, others are still a work in progress. The political debate over equal pay for women continues to rage, a subject the suffragists outlined when they wrote, "He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration."
One of the crowning political achievements these activists achieved is housed in the National Archives: the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. But, Ferriero noted, the Archives also include documents railing against this change, including a memorable Dec. 11, 1917 letter on the subject from Mrs. James W. Wadsworth Jr. to the Hon. Charles E. Fuller, a U.S. House member from Illinois.
Wadsworth, president of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, submitted a petition saying that when it came to giving women the right to vote, "It would be an official endorsement of nagging as a national policy." (original emphasis)
"It would give every radical woman the right to believe that she could get any law she wanted by 'pestering' her City Council, her Legislature, her Congressman or her President--no matter how the people voted, nor what national crisis existed," she added. "And if feminism can be put through by pestering, regardless of the will of the people, so can pacifism, socialism and other isms."
Fuller's reply, alas, has been lost to history.